Introducing: Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest Switch Review
From the small selection of friends I have been able to pester during this current lockdown. It is clear we fall into two camps, those who love vampires and those who love werewolves. Personally, I side with the latter. Different Tales’ recent creation gives players the chance to immerse themselves in a world where gothic horror and real life events collide.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse is itself a series within a series. The game setting is in the universe of a tabletop roleplaying game of the same name. Combined with a vampire themed game, it creates a wider universe called “World of Darkness”. An action RPG planned for 2021 by developers Cyanide is also in the works. Clearly an attempt at making an expanding universe is starting to form.
The team behind “The Heart of the Forest” themselves posses quite a pedigree. From connections to triple A titles like the Witcher, to published authors of tabletop roleplaing games set in the same universe. There is clearly a lot of love put into this project. The developers go so far as to claim this as a close digital representation of a tabletop roleplay session. Shall we begin?
Puszcza is calling you…
Heart of the Forest describes itself as a text based role playing game. The story puts you as a young American girl, “Mia” returning to Poland in search of… Well, technically even that is up for grabs. From the get go, the game gives you options about the choices and decisions you make. But for now, as it becomes important, Mia is searching for information about her family.
As the story progresses, you uncover a plot to harm what is one of the last primeval forests in Europe, Białowieża forest which straddles the border of Belarus and Poland. Mia quickly gets caught up in the operation and her actions shape the course of the activist’s efforts.
It’s hard to remain spoiler free in a game with the word “werewolf” in the title. But I think it’s safe to say at some point in the game you uncover that Mia descends from a werewolf lineage and as such, this story helps to shape future decision and indeed your decisions influence the type of werewolf you become based on the franchise’s lore.
Step into the forest…
The game is entirely text based. A narration piece gives you exposition and the options available to you. Your Choices clearly matter as making a decision removes others from you as you progress. So, at times, it can be safe to say you can back yourself into a corner. Completing options that go against your character traits, or are difficult to achieve, will often cost you either will power or rage. Some decisions can even harm your health directly and all of these changes can prevent you from performing certain options.
Each part of the story unlocks further progression by giving the player goals to strive for and completing them refreshes your stat points, which is certainly useful. Loss of specific stats can prevent you from accessing certain choices, forcing you to manage your resources.
Game progress is recorded using two resources. You have access to a character sheet and a journal. The character sheet focuses on background and stats whereas your journal keeps a log of your actions and decisions as you traverse the world.
There’s a world of choice and a lot of lore
Gameplay as a whole is shifted to your interactions. While the game plays closer to a visual novel, there is plenty of interaction with the world around you. The game relies on its lore and story telling to create an immersive experience for the player. For the most part it accomplishes this goal, though some of the characters could be explored a little deeper at times.
It is clear that this is no Mass Effect 3, here you do feel you have real control over your actions and that your actions have consequence. There is clearly a wide and well thought out decision tree that creates a diverse range of endings and interactions.
A digital tabletop RPG…
At times I felt that I wanted a little more background into the wider universe, and did find myself delving into some wiki articles. There are descriptions on the various elements for new players as well, but I felt immersed enough that I wanted to discover more about the world as a whole. This was particularly prevalent during a lot of the werewolf sections of the game where there are a number of variable elements.
Truth be told, the choices made didn’t feel to effect my outcomes greatly in the werewolf portion as the story began to feel more linear by this point. The use of the Garou mechanic to change forms felt more of a means to vary the outcome and there didn’t feel to be enough fleshing out of the tribal aspect of the lore.
The story was, overall, the driving force of the game. I started to lose focus at times during the repeated walls of text, but the fusing of modern environmental issues with traditional eastern European werewolf lore kept me invested in Mia’s fate. I felt it would have possibly made it more interactive if it was possible to fail decisions, as in other tabletop roleplaying games, with failed attempts punishing your impulsive rage and forcing you to think more strategically.
Theatre of the mind is a key theme
Aesthetically the game does a fantastic job of immersing the player into the surroundings of both the forest and the fantasy world which it seeks to combine. Each section of story has it’s own combination of art assets which are a combination of illustrations, photographs and paintings. There were times the art truly shocked me as it appeared on screen (I’m a huge fraidy cat!) and one image in particular still makes me shudder. But this is a strength of the game, again helping to immerse you while still encouraging an aspect of “theatre of the mind”
Audio in the game is also a strong addition. There is little in the way of music, but what is there is in keeping with the games flavour, coming from local artists. Where the audio shines is again in creating the immersive atmosphere. There are no false werewolf noises here! But sounds of the forest and it’s inhabitants are quickly washed over you and as mentioned earlier, help to encourage “theatre of the mind”.
Audio and artwork merge together to provide what tabletop roleplayers would equate to being given handouts and background music with which to help transport you into the wider universe. It is not a digitally remastered soundtrack from a whole host of artists, combined with fast moving cut scenes. But that isn’t the aim here, and it does it very well!
Short, but immersive storytelling
Personally, I consider the game to be incredibly short. With the majority of the “meat” coming in the last few chapters of the game. There is a lot of sense of building up. My entire play through was a few hours long, possibly a little longer than the developers suggested 5hours. There is a great deal of replay value in the sheer volume of player choice, however, which extends the game greatly.
I really enjoyed one aspect of the game and that was the use of real life events being merged into the game universe. You are quickly introduced into what is one of the largest remaining primeval forests, itself a character and portrayed well in the story. The forest has been the subject of a number of controversies surrounding illegal logging activities and this forms a large part of the motivation of the characters involved.
In terms of bugs, there was nothing game breaking. However, there were occasions where the screen froze on transition to the next scene. This was easily fixed by exiting to the main menu and selecting “continue” without losing any game progress. Frustrating, but hopefully fixed easily in an update.
Was it a howling good time? (Ok sorry!)
Overall, Heart of the Forest is certainly more than a visual novel. But I question whether the game has truly achieved it’s goal of creating a digital tabletop roleplay experience. It certainly comes close!
In terms of the story. By the end of the game I wanted to learn more. I wanted to discover more of the world and I wanted to explore more of the characters I had just met. But a great story can only do so much.
Choosing to have the whole game as text, while fitting with the aesthetic, did feel a bit daunting. Even for a regular RPG player as myself. Perhaps it was the fact it was rarely broken up, feeling like a wall at times. I craved some narration, a GM figure asking me what I want to do. It may have hurt the immersive elements of the game, but would have pushed it closer to feeling like a tabletop RPG.
Likewise, while the game limits the choices of the player based on their levels of health, willpower and rage. I felt this didn’t stop me progressing, and usually in a manner that I wanted to play out. Part of me questioned early on how much more fun this would be with critical fails. At no time did I feel “scared” to make a decision which might harm my character because I was certain a goal was in sight.
This is clearly a great title for fans of visual novels and seasoned World of Darkness players. There is also enough here to make a great introduction to the franchise and draw new players into what is a world steeped in lore.
- Huge amount of player choice
- Immersive environment with on theme artistic directions
- Compelling and thought provoking story rooted in real life events
- Far too short, even with replay value
- Risk / Reward doesn’t always seem balanced
- Main focus of the story feels rushed toward the end